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New London — Seymour and Pat Hendel have lived in New London for most of their lives, but on Wednesday evening they went into a number of downtown restaurants for the first time.
The city natives were two of at least 900 people who ate, drank and were merry during the eighth annual Fall Food Stroll, organized by New London Main Street.
More than 40 restaurants, galleries and shops participated in the stroll, offering strollers samples of their food and goods as local musicians filled the waterfront air with music.
"New London is a beautiful city. They need to do more to get people to come down here," Pat Hendel said. "I wish they did this every week."
For the second straight year, the food stroll was sold out; all 900 buttons were gone by the early morning hours of Wednesday, New London Main Street Executive Director Annah Perch said.
"It seems to be increasingly popular and we could tell toward the end of (Tuesday) from people responding to social media that we had more people who planned on coming than had bought tickets," Perch said. "It's not a surprise, we feel bad having to turn people away but we can't overtax our restaurants so there really is a threshold on the number of people who can take part in the stroll."
Wednesday night, strollers were treated to fall harvest turkey pot pie at Bulkeley House Saloon, fish tacos at Dickson's Tavern, apple and butternut squash bisque at Gaspar's New American Cuisine, and oxtail with rice and beans at In-N-Out Caribbean Cuisine.
"The place is packed, it is a fantastic night out," Mike Davis, 48, of Niantic, said. "We stopped at just about every place and everyone has been very welcoming."
Davis and his wife, Lisa, said they were not sure what to expect from the food stroll, but now plan to bring other couples when they return next year.
"There is certainly a huge audience of people who, after attending a food stroll, know how incredible New London's restaurants are," Perch said. "Hopefully they are returning on a regular basis to frequent their favorite restaurants."
At Dev's on Bank, where owner Candace Devendittis served shrimp BLTs, large groups from Connecticut College and Lawrence + Memorial Hospital mingled with a sizeable crowd of regulars.
"It's some newcomers, but almost everyone here came because one of our regulars recommended us," Devendittis said. "We want people to get a taste of New London and a taste of Dev's."
Strollers also had the chance to take advantage of special discounts and promotions at a number of specialty shops and galleries, like the recently opened Bravado barbershop on State Street, which handed out $5 gift cards for first-time customers.
"I wanted to use this opportunity to pass out something that I can recognize when it comes back and know that the person stopped in during the food stroll," Kiesha Murphy, owner of Bravado, said. "I think the vibe we create in here really fits with the vibe of the food stroll."
The overall winner of the food stroll was Chaplin's for its ham and Vermont cheddar macaroni and cheese. Second place honors went to 2 Wives Brick Oven Pizza for its fall harvest pizza, and Dev's on Bank won third for its shrimp BLT. The pulled pork sandwiches at State Street Saloon took home the people's choice award.
The winner of the dessert category was the coffee mocha frosted cupcakes served at Pinc!
Restaurants and businesses are not all that are showcased during the food stroll, organizers said.
"The hope for New London Main Street is to bring not only an event to New London, but to have the opportunity for people who live outside of New London to come to downtown and see all that it has to offer for a dining, entertainment and retail experience," Renee Fournier, president of Main Street's board of directors, said. "New London's downtown has such a wealth of popular eateries and galleries and destinations that many people don't know about, and the food stroll really provides an opportunity to put New London's best foot forward."